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Reason Foundation

Air Traffic Control Reform Newsletter #48

Topics include: blaming weather for ATC delays; controller salaries; business jets expanding in user-fee countries; faster implementation of ADS-B; and other news.

Robert Poole
October 1, 2007

In this issue:


Don't Blame "the Weather" for ATC Delays

In the ongoing debate over this summer's record-high air travel delays, defenders of the status quo make one or both of the following arguments to dismiss the relevance of ATC reform. Either they blame the delays on unusually bad weather or they point the finger at congested hub airports. In either case, they dismiss the need to add large amounts of capacity to controlled airspace.

Fortunately, the antique structure and operating concept of today's 1960s-era ATC system is at last being explained to the non-aviation public. A good example is the Sept. 28 front-page article in the Wall Street Journal, "Why Even Sunny Days Can Ground Airplanes." Due to "the constraints of an antiquated and inefficient system for managing US airspace," wrote authors Paulo Prada and Scott McCartney, the "lack of capacity in a seemingly boundless sky translates to massive delays on the ground."

The reason for this is a concept of operations that is still tied to imprecise radar surveillance and a network of ground-based VOR stations. The United States is criss-crossed by a surprisingly limited number of airways, defined as point-to-point paths from one VOR to the next. Planes must fly, essentially, single file in these airways, because (with rare exceptions) that's the only way air traffic controllers can be sure where they are. And because the planes' positions are known only approximately, large amounts of buffer space must be built into the separations between planes—fore and aft, side to side, and above and below. Jetliners' engines operate most efficiently at altitudes between 24,000 and 37,000 feet. Yet there are only seven eastbound and seven westbound airways into which all such flights must be jammed, regardless of which airports they are going from and to. The same kinds of limits exist up and down the east and west coasts.

As one of my aviation colleagues pointed out recently in an online discussion group, "The ATC system cannot yet deal with [large numbers of] direct point-to-point flights. GPS allows aircraft to fly direct . . . but ATC's system remains dependent on positive control ["Mother, may I?"] of every IFR flight in the system—and thus [most] aircraft must fly along the designated airways."

The NextGen concept of operations dispenses with all that, permitting full use of all the airspace at altitudes where planes need to fly. And by making better use of far more—and far more precise—real-time information about where each plane is, it will permit the automation of many routine aspects of separation. The two factors together (using all the airspace and automating routine tasks) will make it possible to double or triple ATC capacity, and do this without doubling or tripling the number of controllers. That's the key to the large productivity gains NextGen will make possible.

But what about the limited capacity of hub airports? Part of this is an ATC problem, as well. For example, the WSJ article noted that the safe hourly capacity of JFK Airport is about 85 takeoffs and landings per hour. Yet the airport seldom achieves that, due to the crowded airways leading into and out of the region. During the peak periods at JFK this summer, between 3 and 10 PM, JFK averaged only 74 operations per hour. (Reason Foundation will soon publish a new policy study explaining the various ways in which NextGen will increase the effective capacity of existing runways, and permit safe operations on closely spaced parallel runways, as well. This is separate from NextGen's impact on en-route capacity.)

All right then, but what about the weather? First, when really bad weather does occur, planes that would have used an airway through that area have to be squeezed into other, parallel airways. And if those airways are already full, that can be a reason for long ground holds until the en-route weather clears—even if it's a thousand miles from the clear-weather originating airport.

And as David Hughes reported (July 9th) in Aviation Week, NextGen will also dramatically improve the system's performance in bad weather. "The key to reducing delays caused by weather is integrating [a] common operating picture of the nation's weather into decision-making tools used by airlines, air traffic controllers, pilots, dispatchers, and others." Hughes cited research by Metron, Inc. which "shows that traffic could be increased threefold through some areas of thunderstorm activity by use of decision support tools." Research meteorologist John McCarthy says that by "automatically identifying usable routes around thunderstorms and using all the airspace that is hazard-free, four aircraft would be able to fly through an area in a closely-spaced ‘platoon' where only one was previously able to pass at a time." And Mark Andrews, head of the JPDO's weather working group, "says that probabilistic data combined with traffic flow management could save $1.2 billion a year in reduced delays for en-route traffic."

In short, those who say we won't be able to do much of anything about delays without building lots of new runways are wrong (though obviously more runway capacity in key places will help). Likewise wrong are those who portray "weather" as an irreducible obstacle that we'll be stuck with forever. The technology and the operating concepts exist to dramatically reduce delays, by dramatically rethinking what ATC is all about.

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What's New Controllers Actually Get Paid?

In response to my News Note last issue on FAA's recruitment of new controllers to replace the large number of impending retirees, a controller wrote me to say that things were quite different than I had portrayed them. He took issue with my report of the $108K median salary of controllers, noting that new ones are being hired on a lower pay scale, that trainees start at $8/hour, and that they start actual work (after training) at just $30-31K. I learn a lot from reader feedback, so I checked out this controller's points with a contact at FAA headquarters. Here is what I learned.

During initial training, controllers do start out at about $8/hour, but in contrast to pilots who must pay for their own flight training before an airline will hire them, the FAA pays students to attend its Academy (typically a 10-12-week course). After that, they get assigned to an operational facility for on-the-job training, at $32,300 base pay plus locality pay (which adds an average of 17%, bringing them to $37,800). Their pay increases as they reach several levels of proficiency. After five years, on average, today's new hires would reach about $70,000 base play plus $15,000 locality pay plus an estimated $9,200 in overtime and other cash premiums. Hence, about $94,200 after five years on the job—which is not too shabby for a high-school graduate with no college required. And in high cost-of-living areas like Chicago, the comparable total would be over $116K.

My controller correspondent also claimed that "With one exception, every facility I know of has weekly overtime scheduled to meet minimums." And he went on to imply that this is overstressing controllers, as you've probably read in newspaper stories. According to my FAA source, only 18% of the 293 Terminal facilities are consistently scheduling six-day work weeks, about the same as last year. And controllers are taking and using their vacation days, like normal. The majority of overtime goes to controllers who have volunteered for it (which about 70% have done). And most overtime is not due to staffing shortages, says the FAA, but to seasonal traffic peaks, serious weather occurrences, mandatory training, or accommodating employees who want to take vacations during peak travel times (like summer).

To be sure, both the FAA and the controllers union have an incentive to paint a picture consistent with the story they want to tell. But what I got from the controller was a set of anecdotes. What I got from FAA was data. I'll take data over anecdotes any day.

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Business Jets Soaring—in User Fee Countries

"Those two words, ‘user fees,' that we've been hearing for two years, could be the death knell for all of aviation." So said AOPA president Phil Boyer, addressing a gathering of the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. What he meant, presumably, is that if operators of private planes had to pay for the ATC services they consume, many would reduce or cease their flying. That's been the constant refrain from the National Business Aviation Association, as well.

How ironic, then, that NBAA's annual convention last month took place amidst record orders and backlogs for business jets (the only category of general aviation for which user fees have been proposed, by both the FAA and the Senate). And as numerous articles, in both aviation and general media have been pointing out, the business jet market is going global at a fast pace. Aviation Week (Sept. 24, 2007) reported Honeywell's analysis of this change. While three-fourths of all bizjets now in operation are registered in North America, half of all new purchases over the next five years will be in Europe (21%), Asia-Pacific (15%), Latin America (10%), and Middle East/Africa (4%).

And as a Reason Foundation study back in May 2005 pointed out, only 21 out of 180 countries do not charge ATC user fees (see Table 4 in www.reason.org/ps332.pdf). Those 21 are almost entirely island-mini-states or banana republics—with the lone exception of the USA. All serious countries other than the United States—places like Australia, Brazil, Chile, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, the U.K.— charge user fees, and in more than 40 such countries the ATC system is financially independent of the government's budget process.

That means the explosive global growth in business jet sales and use is occurring in countries with ATC user fees. How anyone can claim that user fees would destroy aviation—and be taken seriously—is beyond me.

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ADS-B Plan Raises Chicken-and-Egg Problem

Advocates of transforming U.S. air traffic control along the lines of the proposed NextGen approach were cheered by the FAA's Oct. 2 announcement of a schedule for equipping all planes flying in controlled airspace with the onboard equipment to make use of ADS-B. This key building block of the next-generation system will replace radar surveillance with far more accurate GPS positioning and advanced digital communications. The FAA's Oct. 2 equipage mandate follows its Aug. 30 selection of the ITT team to install the first phase of nationwide ADS-B ground stations. Full phase-in of ground stations is projected by 2013.

Virtually everyone in aviation supports the move to ADS-B. But there are considerable differences of opinion on the timetable for equipage. Oversimplifying somewhat, representatives of private pilots, such as AOPA, are concerned about the cost to their members, and therefore want a far-off deadline for equipage—at least as long as the 2020 that FAA has proposed. Airlines, on the other hand, chafe at having to shell out to equip their fleets when the real benefits—such as more direct, fuel-saving routes and expanded en-route capacity—won't be realized until all planes are equipped. Former FAA official George Donohue, director of the Center for Air Transportation System Research at George Mason University, suggests that a five-year transition period would be ample (i.e., 2012). That was the transition period during which all airliners had to be equipped with the collision-avoidance system TCAS, a system of roughly comparable cost per plane.

ADS-B seems on the way to becoming the international standard for next-generation ATC. Australia and Canada's corporatized ATC providers are already implementing it, and Eurocontrol and other European players agreed on a draft schedule in July. What kinds of equipage deadlines are in prospect in these other countries? In Australia, the proposed schedule calls for a mid-2012 deadline for all instrument flight rules (IFR) operators to be equipped with "ADS-B Out," under which the current transponder would be replaced with an ADS-B box that transmits the aircraft's GPS-derived position and identity. (ADS-B Out capability is what FAA is proposing to mandate by 2020; the more-capable ADS-B In would presumably be farther off in the future.) Australia would even require pilotless balloons and VFR flights in radio-equipped planes to have ADS-B Out by 2014. The draft European plan would have ground stations in place by 2009 with full user equipage by 2015. The International Air Transport Association has endorsed a 2015 equipage deadline for ADS-B Out. Nav Canada has not yet set nationwide equipage deadlines, but is proceeding to implement ADS-B in the Hudson Bay region, with enthusiastic user support.

Besides the problem of the benefits not being realized until all controlled airspace users are equipped, a far-off or uncertain equipage deadline also poses a dilemma for avionics manufacturers. While some airlines may bite the bullet based on near-term benefits (as UPS is doing for its hub operation at Louisville), the market for a general-aviation-compatible ADS-B box will remain vague with a far-off 2020 deadline. What's needed to make such boxes affordable is large-scale production, to realize economies of scale. A 2012 or 2014 equipage deadline would make large-scale production a lot more likely.

The Australians are also talking about "cross-industry funding" to assist with equipping planes weighing 5700 kg. (12,500 lbs) or less. Presumably that means some kind of cross-subsidy. Another possibility would be to offer discounts on ATC user fees for aircraft that equip before the deadline—at least in countries where ATC is paid for via user fees.

Turning this chicken-and-egg problem into a win-win proposition for airlines, business jets, and GA piston plane operators would be easier if the ATC provider were governed by a board of directors representing the various users. Such a board is what governs Nav Canada, and that has facilitated reaching agreement on the business case for ADS-B implementation in the Hudson Bay region. Both the current Senate FAA reauthorization bill and the FAA's more ambitious reauthorization proposal call for a fledgling version of such a board for the Air Traffic Organization. It would be a real help in sorting out not just the ADS-B question but many other key decisions on implementing NextGen.

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News Notes

Nav Canada Rate Reductions. Opponents of change portray ATC user fees as going in only one direction: up. But that hasn't been the case in Canada. User-controlled nonprofit ATC provider Nav Canada has had a number of rate reductions in its 11-year history, and this summer put in place its latest one. Originally planned as a 3% reduction effective Sept. 1st, it turned out to be a 4% reduction effective Aug. 1st. The rate reduction will save customers an estimated $50 million in fiscal year 2008. As a not-for-profit corporation run in the interests of its customers, Nav Canada uses any excess of revenues over expenses for some combination of debt reduction, additions to reserve funds, and rate reductions.

House Reauthorization Bill Heading for Sustainable Veto. Former Aviation Subcommittee chair Rep. John Mica (R, FL) warned (in Aviation Daily, Sept. 19th) that inclusion of a provision to overturn the FAA's 2006 contract with controllers' union NATCA was a deal-killer. And the White House made that official with a "Statement of Administration Policy" that same day. When the full House voted on the bill (which still contained the pro-union position), astute observers were quick to point out that the vote was only 267-151. Those 151 nays were well above the 146 needed to sustain a veto.

Standardized Definitions. Kudos to FAA for deciding, from now on, to use the internationally accepted definition of what constitutes a runway incursion. Most civilized countries measure runway incursions according to the definition promulgated by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), to which the United States is a signatory. Using a common definition makes it easier to do international comparisons on this important safety measure. Now if only FAA would take the next step and revise its definition of ATC "operational errors." As I pointed out in Issue No. 22, without such standardization, claims that one air navigation service provider has a better or worse safety record (as measured by the frequency of operational errors) are meaningless.

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Quotable Quotes

"There is little connection between what users pay for services and the costs they generate, and this detachment leads to distorted consumption of air traffic services, and ultimately congestion. This is why the Administration developed a proposal that included provisions for cost-based financing, the flexibility to charge congestion fees, and market-based congestion pilots at congested airports like LaGuardia. We know the system is not cost-based from the results of the FAA's most recent study. Using comprehensive cost accounting and activity data, we put together the most detailed and transparent cost allocation ever done by FAA or, we believe, by any other air traffic control provider. . . . In its proposal, FAA would charge cost-based fees for terminal and en-route airspace. At large congested [terminal areas], FAA could vary this terminal fee based on the time of day and day of the week, to reduce delays and congestion."
--Acting FAA Administrator Bobby Sturgell and U.S. DOT General Counsel D.J. Gribbin, testimony before Senate Aviation Subcommittee, Sept. 27, 2007.

"Separation of [aviation] organizations into formal and independent structures has taken effect over the last couple of years. There are now only a few exceptions where the [safety] regulatory and [ATC] provider sides are in the same organization."
--Bo Redeborn, interview in CANSO's Update Europe, June 2007 (www.canso.org)

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Robert Poole is Searle Freedom Trust Transportation Fellow and Director of Transportation Policy


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